The Taco Bus opens in downtown Tampa on Wednesday. There's not a line yet — we think — but there will be soon.
That's what happens when the Taco Bus sets up shop. People squeal, swarm and swoon.
This Tampa-based eatery has become the "it" place for fresh, Mexican fare. It began as a mobile taco vendor long before food trucks were hip and put down stakes in a not-so-trendy spot along Hillsborough Avenue. St. Petersburg finally got its own last year. The new location on Franklin Street marks the Taco Bus' first attempt in a storefront restaurant. There's no bus, except in the name. Order takers will be at eye level.
If you're familiar with butternut squash tostadas and cochinita pibil tacos, proceed directly to the front door, or as close to it as you can get. If you're not, don't admit it. And never, ever order a hard taco with lettuce.
Although some might argue the hype trumps the food, here are some reasons why the Taco Bus has gained a cult-like following.
1. The restaurant cooks everything from scratch using fresh ingredients. Nothing comes out of a Sysco can; the kitchen staff spends a lot of time dicing tomatoes and onions. No chicken stock and lard is used, and the corn tortillas contain no salt. The recipe for marinated pork (cochinita pibil) is based on an ancient Mayan recipe. "It's not funny food, it's real food,'' said owner Rene Valenzuela.
2. Taco Bus food isn't the typical "Tex-Mex'' locals are accustomed to. It's not just chicken or beef and an Ortega Grande Dinner Kit. Taco Bus pushes unseasoned palates with offerings like braised beef (barbacoa) and beef tongue (lengua). And the strategy must be working. Where the Taco Bus has succeeded, others have failed, including Algusto on Kennedy Boulevard, Mema's Alaskan Tacos in Ybor City and Don Pablo's, which closed its Tampa locations.
3. Its mobile roots gave it a cool, grungy reputation embraced equally by guys in dreadlocks and women in power suits. Its health-conscious menu has something for both vegetarians and meat eaters. The Taco Bus isn't as cheap as other taco vendors it's modeled after in California, but it's affordable enough to attract all budgets.
4. Valenzuela, the owner, knows it takes more than a good taco to run a successful business. It takes patience, smarts and a little luck, he says. Valenzuela has been slow and deliberate about adding locations and opposes franchising because he doesn't want to lose control. He plans to expand to other cities but isn't in a hurry, stressing that locations must be super busy in order to make money. "I don't want to be small forever … but I'd rather have three good ones than 10 not-so-good ones.''
5. Two major forces are working in the Taco Bus' favor: Tampa Bay's recent obsession with food trucks and the restaurant's appearances on food shows. Food truck rallies have expanded the local fan base. Segments on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives and Man v. Food have given it national cache. Food Network stars tend to travel like a herd, so once one show visits a place, others are bound to follow. One dose of publicity often leads to the next.